Exploring Seven Dials, the secretive maze of the offbeat and independent

Words: Chris Zacharia & Lauren Katalinich

‘Seven Dials? Where’s that, then?’

For one of London’s most distinctive quarters, Seven Dials is secretive. My friend has lived in London for years, but still isn’t quite sure where this cobbled maze of sisterly streets actually is.

Sandwiched between some of the busiest hotspots of central London, its most often happened-upon- and with a quick glance down some of its more manicured streets, it could easily be written off as just another tourist enclave.

But chatting casually with the shopkeeper Dominic of St. John’s Bakery on a Thursday afternoon while munching on pastries to old stories of Neal’s Yard, I’m struck by a how distinctive Seven Dials’ community really is.

‘Neal’s Yard is lovely – small, independent. In a week of being here, all the other shops had approached us to say hello’

To be fair, one look inside St. John’s Bakery and you’d want to come inside, too. Fluffy cakes, shiny buns and rustic loaves line the counter as Dominic stands proudly behind the glass, like a father beaming above his children.

‘There’s a commitment to quality. Everyone’s doing something different, and they’re doing it well. What do you think of our Eccles cake? Good, right?’’

Buttery, golden, sticky on my fingertips – it’s tasty, and proof of Dominic’s remark about the high standards here. Don’t be fooled by the slick exteriors of its well-dressed shops. Seven Dials array of independent establishments specialise in the personal, artisanal and authentic, defining them sharply from the flagship brand stores and chain-shops dominating much of the city centre.

Even in central London, Seven Dials is an outstanding neighbourhood – and not only because of its quality. Seven streets, like the spokes of a wheel, unite at a cobblestone centre crowned with a pillared sundial. The result is an intimate, self-contained symmetry of shops and passageways that feel like a small world of its own.

Each street has something different to offer and exploring them brings a sense of adventure with structure as you easily wander into shops, back to the dial, and down another passage, lost and found with every street you take. This sheltered intimacy is rare in London, safeguarded by Seven Dials’ unusual maze of spokes.

Built in the 1600s, the district was supposed to capture the passing trade of prosperous shoppers in nearby Covent Garden, only to fall fast into shabbiness. By the time of Charles Dickens, it Seven Dials was one of London’s most notorious slums, and its central sundial has lured devotees of the occult for centuries.

Not that you’d have a clue about this period from today’s Seven Dials. Whichever street you wander, you’re certain to encounter affluence of every kind. On the surface, Seven Dials seems like the immaculate crown on Covent Garden. But beneath this shiny exterior, Seven Dials has something far more surprising to reveal.

‘Lots of our customers are locals’ says Dominic. He speaks easily, one of those effortlessly charming shopkeepers who can keep you by the counter for hours. ‘There’s a woman who lives upstairs who comes in the morning for her bread’, he says gesturing the brightly coloured flats perched above the bistro opposite. ‘People pop in on their way to work for pastries. We have our regulars’

I comment on a small sign that reads, ‘£1 coffee’ and he smiles. ‘People don’t expect that here in Covent Garden!’

With its simple black-and-white exterior, St John’s Bakery might have been lifted straight out of a tight working class community in Barking, Bradford or Basingstoke. The fact that it’s here, in one of central London’s famous tourist locales, is in part a testament to the community spirit that survives in this area, and the desire by visitors and local alike for something both practical and genuine.

This is especially apparent around the corner on Monmouth Street where Katie manages the edgy independent jeweller, Tatty Devine. It is one of five jewellery stores dotting the road.

‘Everyone here is really nice’ nods Katie. ‘This part of Seven Dials is like a mini jewellery district. But we’re all different. So we send people across the street if we think they’d prefer their stuff’

Tatty Devine’s jewellery is distinctive. Colourful, visually striking laser-cut plastic is cut into all kinds of playful shapes, from planets to parrots. There’s a slice of watermelon with black seeds gleaming like eyes; a skeletal T-rex necklace; and cartoonish dagger-esque lightning bolt earrings. Everywhere you look there’s brightness, humour, and no little skill.

‘Everything with a curve has been hand-bent’ Katie explains as I ogle the necklaces.

It’s meticulously rendered and full of personality, but it’s easy to see why they’re not really competing with the likes of Dinny Hall, the more traditional jeweller opposite.

‘People come here for the independent brands’ Katie continues. ‘But it’s hard work – we’ve been here for nine years, and in that time we’ve had four different neighbours go under’

Community isn’t enough to keep a business alive. But while the high street is suffering, it’s clear Seven Dials’ retailers are ahead of the curve. Boutique stores for handbags, shoes, and perfume seem to cycle in and out with regularity but its independent shops are working hard to offer customers the few things you still can’t get online these days- personalisation, experience, and human connection.

Tatty Devine host workshops where you can learn how to cut your own necklace or earrings. Superga, the sneaker brand, have an artist at hand to personalise your shoes.

‘As a Millennial, I noticed a trend among my friends.’ explains Ashley. ‘We were all more interested in doing stuff than buying things.’

Ashley is the founder of Creoate, a pop-up on Neal Street that offers craft workshops and a space for the makers of London to sell their goods year round.

‘Working in finance, I could see the impact that this behaviour was having on our retail clients. So I thought, why not open a shop dedicated to offering experiences and handmade items?’

Part creative club, part shop, Creoate offers the kind of intimate, communal encounters that are impossible to replicate online. A whiteboard displays a calendar of events, letting browsing shoppers know what’s on over the next few weeks. You can sign up there and then.

‘It’s the experiences that bring people in’ Ashley confirms. ‘Not many shops can offer a whole calendar of events.’

The bright, minimalist store is full of leafy tables and shelves showcasing marbled notebooks, ornate bowls, and handmade candles. Downstairs, a cavernous workshop offers space from the same sellers, primarily London-based artists and craftsmen, to teach everything from wreath-making to calligraphy.

‘The woman who makes those notebooks is really passionate’ Ashley offers, catching me admiring a beautifully crafted stationery set. ‘Paper marbling is very skilful but it’s also dying out. Through her workshops she’s hoping to pass the techniques on to the next generation’

‘We try to collaborate with the artists’ says Ashley. ‘The more successful we can make them, the better. Sometimes I help them to come up with workshop ideas’

This new community-oriented model shows how shops can adapt and thrive. Creoate benefits from more shoppers through their door. The shoppers get a more enriching experience, getting to meet artists and new people, and to learn new skills. And the artists get instant feedback from their audiences, spreading their skills and earning more money.

‘Community is vital. Even when we can’t run a workshop, we bring the designers in for ‘Meet the Maker’ sessions. We also connect the artists to each other, so that they can be inspired by one another’

Ashley says they get a few tourists in to buy goods but most of their clientele are people who live and work locally.

Over on Upper St Martin’s Lane, Tymberyard is another demonstration of how Seven Dials is creating spaces for community and collaboration as well as passers-through. Devoted to freelancers, Timberyard is a hybrid coffeeshop and workspace. Step inside, and you’re greeted by the silver reflections of countless MacBooks. There are comfy armchairs, plentiful of plugs and excellent coffee to keep you perked up.

I gape around in awe. As a freelancer myself, I know how hard it is to find a public space that is truly conducive to work. With flawless WiFi, quality brownies and staff who actually want you to get your laptop out, Timberyard is perfect. I’m not surprised when I discover that it won an award for the UK’s best independent coffee shop three years running.

Seeing so many staring into their laptop screens is unsettling at first, but it doesn’t harm the atmosphere. Plenty are working together, leaning from armchair to armchair to peer at one another’s work. And the staff are cheerful and chatty, joking with the regulars who use Timberyard as a personal office.

Oh, and after tasting the peanut-butter jelly slab, Timberyard is worth a visit even if you’re just after a bite and a drink.

Sated, I wave goodbye to the barista and step out into the fog, heading towards the sundial. On my first foray into Seven Dials, I saw each street-spoke as a connective instrument, part of a greater whole like a bolt in a machine. But now by the time of my third visit, I’m seeing the seven streets as a family, each with their own distinct personality but united by kinship, protecting one another from the boisterous bustle of the big city.  

In the place where all the streets meet, people gather beneath the sundial, as they have done for centuries. Couples embrace, families of tourists gasp and smile at the lights, and a girl has her photo taken with the picturesque bustle of Earlham St as her backdrop. Here in the heart of London, Seven Dials captures the best things about the city: its individuality, its creativity, and the communities of people who make it so special.


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